Are female monarch butterflies declining in eastern North America? Evidence of a 30-year change in sex ratios at Mexican overwintering sites

Andrew K. Davis, Eduardo Rendón-Salinas

Abstract

Every autumn the entire eastern North American population of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) undergoes a spectacular migration to overwintering sites in the mountains of central Mexico, where they form massive clusters and can number in the millions. Since their discovery, these sites have been extensively studied, and in many of these studies, monarchs were captured and sexes recorded. In a recent effort to compile the sex ratio data from these published records, a surprising trend was found, which appears to show a gradual decline in proportion of females over time. Sex ratio data from 14 collections of monarchs, all spanning 30 years and totaling 69 113 individuals, showed a significant negative correlation between proportion of females and year (r = −0.69, p = 0.007). Between 1976 and 1985, 53 per cent of overwintering monarchs were female, whereas in the last decade, 43 per cent were female. The relationship was significant with and without weighting the analyses by sampling effort. Moreover, analysis of a recent three-year dataset of sex ratios revealed no variation among nine separate colonies, so differences in sampling location did not influence the trend. Additional evidence from autumn migration collections appears to confirm that proportions of females are declining, and also suggests the sex ratio is shifting on breeding grounds. While breeding monarchs face a number of threats, one possibility is an increase in prevalence of the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, which recent evidence shows affects females more so than males. Further study will be needed to determine the exact cause of this trend, but for now it should be monitored closely.

Footnotes

    • Received August 2, 2009.
    • Accepted September 2, 2009.
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